Holden’s teachers

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about the failure of teachers. Reading it felt like a warning. “I’m trying to help you,” says Mr Spencer, the history teacher at Pencey who’d flunked Holden Caufield. But his tactics are all wrong. Why lecture a student about his future after throwing him out? Holden’s judgement is fair but firm: “we were too much on opposite sides of the pole.” Holden walks out at the end of chapter two, mishearing the teacher’s final remark.

So I have my nightmare: waking up as Mr Spencer. Failing a student. Staying at school as Holden walks away. Happily, Salinger gives us some teachers who pass the test. I read them for clues about being liked by troubled students.


“Oh, Romeo and Juliet! Lovely!” says a nun at a sandwich bar. “Didn’t you just love it?” She’s in town to teach English, and shows love for her subject even before reaching the school. But in contrast to Mr Spencer, this teacher mainly listens, indulging Holden as he outlines a theory about Mercutio. “We enjoyed talking to you so much,” she says as they depart, meaning she liked hearing what Holden had to say. This is unfamiliar territory for the teenager: he thinks about the nuns for the rest of the day, including when his sister asks him to name something he really likes.

So listening to students, is it that easy? Possibly, though the nuns are never tested beyond breakfast. Mr Antolini, on the other hand – well, if Mr Spencer is the stuff of my nightmares, Mr Antolini is my first thought when I wake.

“He was about the best teacher I ever had, Mr Antolini.” Smart, nice, young and with a good sense of humour, this English teacher comes as close as anyone to earning Holden’s respect. Tellingly, he’s never shown in the classroom; instead, he’s in the yard retrieving bodies (“he was the one that finally picked up that boy that jumped out the window”) or at home, late at night, ready to let Holden crash on the sofa. It’s all very inappropriate. “How’re all your women?” he asks Holden, cocktail glass in one hand.

Other teachers are sleeping; Mr Antolini’s still at work. “You’re a student,” he tells Holden, “whether the idea appeals to you or not. You’re in love with knowledge.” But this isn’t about school. Mr Antolini’s showing Holden a way of learning that’s customised, seeming to take for granted that schools will keep throwing him out. He’s directing Holden to work by others like him, people who have been “just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.” This is teaching from the library, not the classroom, advising a student to transcend school. “It isn’t education,” he insists. “It’s history. It’s poetry.”

If only he hadn’t touched Holden’s hair. It unwinds everything, recasting his welcome as a trap, his care as seduction. It’s a devastating scene, especially as Holden tells it. “When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.”

Twenty times? This changes everything. Surely it’s the key to the whole premise of the novel, explaining its hero’s defiance, showing schools as institutions run at the expense of students, not for their benefit. Perversely, it even explains the appeal of Mr Antolini, who seems to transcend the institutions that Holden despises – until he wakes up with his hand on his brow. That’s why the incident comes as such a blow: Mr Antolini’s boundary-crossing extinguishes the last hope of an ally.

Or does it? Salinger’s novel is not an easy read. It resists co-option by any cause, including my own daft attempt to read it as a how-to guide for teachers. On the same page it rejects rule-bending teachers and those who play by the book. And, awkwardly, Mr Antolini’s error can be judged more harshly by readers than Holden himself, who toys with the possibility of forgiveness. “I mean I started thinking that even if he was a flit he certainly’d been very nice to me.” Oh, Holden, you’ve got so much to learn! (Or, as another teacher would say, “I’m trying to help you.”)

The Catcher in the Rye ends beautifully, in a scene between Holden and his younger sister, who’s riding a carrousel. She’s left school to be here, and – in the spirit of Mr Antolini – it’s here we should expect real knowledge. Sure enough, Holden comes up with something as he watches his sister spinning round. The secret to good teaching? “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.”


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